"Oh, it's completely different," singer and guitarist Josh Berwanger explains. "I have a feeling every one of our albums will be that way. It's kind of a mix between reggae and hip-hop right now. No, I'm serious! We've been using drum machines nonstop. When the album comes out, maybe only one or two of these will go on it, but that's what we've been doing right now -- soul, reggae and hip-hop. There's a lot of percussion, a lot of more soothing vocals. It's definitely the best stuff we've ever written."
Formed in Kansas City circa 1996, Berwanger and company (guitarist and vocalist Justin Roelofs, keyboardist and vocalist Adrianne Verhoeven-Pope, bassist Jim David and drummer Chris Jenko) went on to become a nationally renowned indie act with the release of its mint-fresh 2000 debut, Designing a Nervous Breakdown. Tours with Superchunk, Mates of State and labelmates the Get Up Kids followed, with the Anniversary's popularity growing by leaps and bounds. The group's profile received an additional, unintentional boost when Berwanger briefly dated Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny.
Everything changed with the 2002 release of Majesty, an acid-tinged work that found the Anniversary toying with psychedelia. To some, Majesty marked an era of unparalleled growth (indie authority Magnet named it one of the year's best albums), but others derided it as hippie rock. Love it or hate it, Majesty marked a new direction for the Anniversary, and the band's recent shows have focused almost exclusively on post-Breakdown material.
"It really doesn't fuckin' matter to us," Berwanger says of the debate over the Anniversary's shift in musical focus. "The smart kids like the new album, and the other kids can keep listening to whatever the hell they like -- you know, that teen-angst stuff."
Speaking of which, if you haven't heard, the Anniversary has split with its longtime label, Heroes and Villains, distributed by Vagrant, which is home to the cream of the emo crop (Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day). Although mere label defections are too common to be especially newsworthy, the relationship between the Anniversary and Vagrant seems fraught with an unusually high level of acrimony. Vagrant co-owner Rich Egan posted (and later removed) a scathing diatribe against the band on the record company's Internet message board, a screed that gained a fair amount of notoriety as it circulated online.
"I'm simply not at liberty to go into details," Egan's post began. "Suffice to say this. You will NEVER see this band 1) on tour with other Vagrant bands. The Get Up Kids or anyone else. 2) being promoted on this web site."
True to his word, nearly every trace of the Anniversary's existence has been eliminated from Vagrant.com, and the Anniversary is now in search of a new label to call home. Egan insists that this move was a "natural evolution," noting that all parties agreed that Vagrant was no longer a good fit for the Anniversary.
"We had already heard the [new] music and decided it wasn't the best place for the band, and vice-versa," Egan tells the Pitch. "[The new material was] not something that I really loved, and that's the main qualification to put a record out on a label. I wasn't crazy about the demos ... not to say that they wanted to be here anyway, but once we had dinner with the band, they told us they were going to look around. They gave us the demos, and we heard it and said that's probably the best idea. It wasn't in the cards. The relationship had run its course."
Fans of the Anniversary and Vagrant took notice of the split, and rumors began to light up the band and the label's online message boards, prompting Vagrant to delete a number of entries and the Anniversary to temporarily remove its bulletin board altogether. To date, the Anniversary has offered little in the way of an official response to the Vagrant situation, but it's clear that there's no love lost between the group and its former record company.
"I could say a million things," Berwanger offers, choosing his words carefully. "But Vagrant? I'm just done with it. This may be the last interview I want to talk anything about it. To me, music is all that matters. This is so hard to answer in a way, because my feelings are very sketchy on Vagrant, and I don't really like to say mean things about people. And not everything I'd say about 'em would be mean. But there's people there that are good people, and most of those people got fired. And there's people there that are complete idiots, who have no idea about anything in the world. Anything -- from human feelings to good music. For reasons such as those, it's time to move on. Vagrant and us have complete opposite ideas of what music should be.
"They just want to make money off of fourteen-year-old girls," Berwanger continues. "That's the crowd they're aiming for, and they always have been. And if your music isn't selling to that crowd, then they just go to the next thing. That's how we were treated on Your Majesty. And they even admitted it to us. They said, 'We have no idea how to market your album.'"
Naturally, Egan disagrees, noting that Vagrant owns the rights to the first two Anniversary records and will continue to sell them, which is puzzling given that both efforts have been removed from Vagrant's online store.
"Was there any problem on our end?" Egan asks. "No. Because [Your Majesty] sold more than the record before. I can't speak for the band, but we didn't have any problems promoting it.... We certainly don't sell Paul Westerberg records to the Dashboard Confessional audience. I think that's just Josh giving his opinion on Dashboard or the fact that his band hasn't reached the critical mass in sales that other bands on the roster have. I don't really put much stock in that, because obviously we've done a pretty good job selling a bunch of other artists on our roster. But if Josh wants to use that as the reason they're not here, that's cool."
The "real" reason behind the acrimony might have less to do with the conflict between the Anniversary and its former label and more to do with a falling out between the Anniversary and longtime brother-band the Get Up Kids. Though no one is willing to talk on the record about the rift, the once-warm relationship now looks frosty. As occurred with Vagrant, the Anniversary has been erased from the Web site of Blue Collar Distribution, the outlet that handles merchandising for the Get Up Kids, Reggie & the Full Effect and related groups.
"These kind of things are never the cleanest of breaks," Egan says. "There's always feelings all around. I just attribute it to that, and they're probably going to be better off wherever they end up going anyway. I don't really think there's really bad blood between the Anniversary and Vagrant. I think there's bad blood between things that have nothing to do with the Anniversary, the band, or Vagrant, the label. It's personal issues. That's where everything stems from, but that was really in retrospect, after the deal was already up with Vagrant."
The falling out between the Anniversary and the Get Up Kids has had other effects as well. In addition to searching for a new label, the Anniversary is also seeking new management and a new booking agent. Berwanger, however, is quick to dismiss any claims that relations between his band and the Kids have soured.
"I just had a beer with Matt [Pryor, Get Up Kids guitarist and singer] the other night," he demurs. "It's fun, it's exciting again. We never really had a chance to do the whole talk-to-different-labels thing. We just kind of signed to Vagrant, and they took us from there. Now we know exactly what we're looking for -- whether it be a major label or an independent label, it doesn't matter. It's just whoever completely understands what we're doing and wants to take it to the next level."
The band probably won't have to look hard to find label and tour support. After all, the Anniversary spent the better part of last year on the road, opening for Dashboard Confessional and Hot Rod Circuit and headlining numerous dates on its own. In the coming weeks, the group is scheduled to open a monthlong tour with Cheap Trick, which will also feature appearances from Guided by Voices and the Paybacks. For the Anniversary, the closing of the Vagrant chapter is the beginning of a new era.
"We're kind of starting over in a way," Berwanger says. "On this Cheap Trick tour, it's just going to be us five in a van again, which we haven't done in a long time -- we've been touring in Winnebagos, and we've had a crew. Sometimes you forget what you're doing or where you come from in a band. I used to look at bands when I was little and wonder -- why do they have drug problems, why do they smoke cigarettes, why do they drink? I get it now. You do that to get away from dealing with what's going on. It's so stressful driving in a car for six hours, next to people, touring. Starting over again makes you realize where you're coming from. It makes you concentrate on the people you love."